17 Mar

John Kitzhaber was his own Brutus

Way back before March Madness, this month had another meaning. It proclaimed the fall of major figures, and the warning that even the highest might suddenly find themselves looking up from the bottom instead of down from the top.

Exactly 2,069 years ago, on another March 15, Julius Caesar discovered this, long before investigations and subpoenas. Just two months ago, with Oregon still in the glow of post-inaugural celebration, it seemed unimaginable that John Kitzhaber would mark today’s date out of power, facing intimidating legal problems and legal bills, with even his visits to the landfill closely examined.

Leaders fall constantly, in March and every other month, in Capitol buildings from Rome to Salem. As Julius Caesar discovered, sharply, there are always those plotting downfalls, conspiracies sometimes discovered and sometimes imagined.

But the striking aspect of John Kitzhaber’s fall, even a month afterward, is that there were never any political plotters eager to bring it about. The wounds that produced Oregon’s greatest recent political fatality were entirely self-inflicted.

It’s as though Caesar, at the dramatic high point, had whipped out a knife and begun dispatching himself.

John Kitzhaber’s fall seems to become more complete, and absolute, on a daily basis. Last week, new Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill abolishing Cover Oregon, officially marking the end of the image of Oregon as the national model in health care reform, with a governor ranked the second-most influential figure in the country on the issue. Earlier this month, Michael Jordan, Kitzhaber’s choice as the state’s first chief operating officer, resigned suddenly with no explanation.

The evidences of Kitzhaber’s presence are vanishing like the snowpack.

Downfalls from Richard Nixon to Bob Packwood to David Wu have been preceded by long stretches of angry demands by other political figures for the leader’s departure. The battles produced countercharges that that the entire scandal was politically driven, an effort to cause a change that couldn’t be achieved in an election. By the time the leader actually gave up, he seemed the last one to conclude he had to go.

The Kitzhaber story looked entirely different. Up until almost the last day, other Oregon political leaders appeared painfully reluctant to get out front in seeking the fall of Kitzhaber, who after three decades at the top of state politics seemed less an incumbent than a monument. In a controversy that extended for months, the other figures on Oregon’s political heights voiced their decision that the governor should go just barely before he voiced his own.

The process could never be called a partisan power grab. Republicans, uncomfortable with Kate Brown or just about any other Democrat, were dubious about calls for Kitzhaber’s leaving right up until the end. “He was really the only one, in my opinion, who could decide when it was time that he could not fulfill his constitutional duties,” House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, told reporters the afternoon of the resignation. “There’s a process in Oregon. Even the governor gets that process.” Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said he would “grieve” for the outcome, and expressed unhappiness about the new governor.

For the fall of Caesar, the attitudes of opposition senators were much more explicit.

Even at the finish, Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, said he’d hoped the process could have continued legally, but “tragically, it seemed like Gov. Kitzhaber seems to have been almost his own worst enemy in this regard, and just kept compounding his own problems on a daily basis.”

The knives into John Kitzhaber kept appearing not in the hands of his foes, but in his own revelations, and actions that repeatedly became public through press and federal investigations. Cut by cut, the word spilled out about overlaps between public and private operations, about Kitzhaber seemingly oblivious to obvious problems with nobody around to caution him as he got deeper, about tax issues that translated his problems from bad judgment to something potentially far more serious.

His troubles deepened, from October to February, while Oregon’s other politicians – except for his opponent in his re-election campaign – had relatively little to say. Even without rising political pressure, even with the rest of the state’s leadership seemingly hoping everything would go away, the revelations by themselves had a knifelike lethalness.

A part of this is that now, unlike 44 B.C. or even 1974, nothing ever goes away. Computer communications, endlessly echoing through cyberspace, turn misdeeds into permanently sharpened blades, each revelation slicing up Kitzhaber’s chances of survival regardless of the attitudes of other politicians.

Et tu, email.

This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 3/15/15.

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